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Yotsuya Kaidan

Related subjects: General Literature

Background Information

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Utagawa Kuniyoshi's portrait of Oiwa.

Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談), the story of Oiwa and Iemon, is a tale of betrayal, murder and ghostly revenge. Arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, it has been adapted for film over 30 times, and continues to be an influence on Japanese horror today.

Written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV as a kabuki play, the original title was Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (東海道四谷怪談). It is now generally shortened, and loosely translates as Ghost Story of Yotsuya.


First staged in July of 1825, Yotsuya Kaidan appeared at the Nakamuraza theatre as a double-feature with the immensely popular Kanadehon Chushingura. Normally, with a Kabuki double-feature, the first play is staged in its entirety, followed by the second play. However, in the case of Yotsuya Kaidan it was decided to interweave the two dramas, with a full staging on two days: the first day started with Kanadehon Chushingura from Act I to Act VI, followed by Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan from Act I to Act III. The following day started with the Onbo canal scene, followed by Kanadehon Chushingura from Act VII to Act XI, then came Act IV and Act V of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan to conclude the program.

The play was incredibly successful, and forced the producers to schedule extra out-of-season performances to meet demand. The story tapped into people’s fears by bringing the ghosts of Japan out of the temples and aristocrats' mansions and into the home of common people, the exact type of people who were the audience of his theatre.

The Story

As the most-adapted Japanese ghost story, the details of Yotsuya Kaidan have been altered over time, often bearing little resemblance to the original kabuki play, and sometimes removing the ghostly element all together. However, the base story usually remains the same, and recognizable.

Historical Basis

Nanboku incorporated two sensational and real-life murders into Yotsuya Kaidan, combining fact and fiction in a manner that resonated with audiences. The first involved two servants who had murdered their respective masters. They were caught and executed on the same day. The second murder was from a samurai who discovered his concubine was having an affair with a servant. The samurai had the faithless concubine and servant nailed to a wooden board and thrown into the Kanda River.

Oiwa and Iemon

The story opens with a murder. Iemon, an unemployed ronin married to Oiwa, killed his father-in-law because he was aware of Iemon's evil past deeds. Penniless, Iemon has been forced to make his living as an oilpaper umbrella maker in order to support his delicate wife and new child. This situation has led him to resent Oiwa.

Oiwa resting with her son, in an 1892 print by Yoshitoshi.

Iemon is lured into a scheme to marry the beautiful granddaughter of a well-to-do neighbor, who is in love with him. In order to clear the path for the new marriage, Iemon and the neighbour plot to murder Oiwa. Iemon gives Oiwa poison disguised as "blood-road medicine," intended to bring back her strength. The poison does not kill her, but instead disfigures her, causing her hair to fall out and her eye to droop. When a mirror is held in front of her, her despair at her disfigurement and the knowledge of her husband's betrayal causes her to die.

When a faithful servant, Kobote Kohei, becomes aware of the murder, Iemon accuses him of theft and has him killed. He then has Kohei and Oiwa's bodies crucified on two sides of a wooden door, which is then flung into a nearby river.

Thinking his troubles are over, Iemon plans his new marriage. On his wedding day to his new bride, Iemon lifts her veil to see Oiwa’s ruined face. He instantly beheads her, only to discover he has killed his new bride. Horrified, he flees to the neighbor's house to confess, where he is confronted by Kohei's ghost. Slashing at the ghost, Iemon finds he has killed his neighbour, his new father-in-law.

From there the haunting continues, with the vengeful spirit of Oiwa pursuing Iemon. Everywhere he goes, he sees her ruined face, even projecting from an overhead lantern. Seeking escape, he retreats to the mountains and goes fishing. Instead of fish, he hooks the board with the corpses of Oiwa and Kohei. He then flees to a cabin in Hebiyama, where the ropes and vines of the cabin transform into snakes and the smoke from the fire transform into Oiwa's hair.

Fleeing the cabin, he runs into his brother-in-law, who kills Iemon and avenges all of the murders.


Yotsuya Kaidan's popularity is often accounted for by the way it fit the mood of its time, as well as its use of universal themes. The Bunsei era was a time of social unrest, and the repressed position of women in society was severe. The exchange of power for powerlessness was something audiences could relate to. Oiwa went from a delicate victim to a powerful avenger, while Iemon transforms from tormentor to tormented.

Also, Oiwa is much more direct in her vengeance than Okiku, another popular kabuki ghost, and she is much more brutal. This added level of violence thrilled audiences, who were seeking more and more violent forms of entertainment.

In addition, the performance of Yotsuya Kaidan was filled with fantastic special effects, with her ruined face projecting magnificently from an onstage lantern, and her hair falling out in impossible amounts.

The Ghost of Oiwa

Oiwa is an onryō, a ghost who seeks vengeance. Her strong passion for revenge allows her to bridge the gap back to Earth. She shares most of the common traits of this style of Japanese ghost, including the white dress representing the burial kimono she would have worn, the long, ragged hair and white/indigo face that marks a ghost in kabuki theatre. There are specific traits to Oiwa that set her apart physically from other onryo.

Most famous is her right eye, which droops down her face due to poison given her by Iemon. This feature is exaggerated in kabuki performances to give Oiwa a distinct appearance.

She is often shown as partially bald, another effect of the poison. In a spectacular scene in the kabuki play, the living Oiwa sits before a mirror and combs her hair, which comes falling out due to the poison. The hair piles up to tremendous heights, achieved by a stage hand who sits under the stage and pushes more and more hair up through the floor while Oiwa is combing.

Hokuei's image of Oiwa emerging from the Lantern.

Yotsuya Kaidan and ukiyo-e

Being a popular Kabuki play, Yotsuya Kaidan soon became a popular subject for ukiyo-e artists as well. In 1826, the same year the play opened at Sumiza Theatre in Osaka, Shunkosai Hokushu produced The Ghost of Oiwa. She is recognizable by her drooping eyes and partial baldness.

An unusual image featuring a still-living Otsuya was depicted as one of the New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

Shunkosai Hokuei created the most famous image of Oiwa, titled The Lantern Ghost of Oiwa, showing her face emerging from a swinging lantern while Iemon turns to meet the apparition, drawing his sword. The lantern scene is a favorite, also being carved into netsuke.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi illustrated the scene at Hebiyama, showing a still-lantern-headed Oiwa coming for Iemon, surrounded by snakes and smoke.

Film Adaptations

Yotsuya Kaidan has been adapted for film more than any other Japanese story. The exact number of adaptations is unknown, due to the large scale destruction of Japanese films by the Allied forces during the Occupation. However, there are estimated to be over 30 versions.

The first film adaptation was in 1912, and it was filmed some 18 times between 1913 and 1937. A notable adaptation was Shinpan Yotsuya Kaidan by Itoi Daisuke, one of the foremost Japanese directors of his time. A 1949 adaptation Yotsuya Kaidan I & II by Kinoshita Keisuke removed the ghostly elements and presented Oiwa as an apparition of her husband's guilty psyche.

The seminal adaptation is considered to be Nobuo Nakagawa's 1959 Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan, which is a very faithful version of the original story, updated only to take advantage of modern special effects.

In 1994, Kinji Fukasaku returned to the Kabuki roots and combined the stories of Chūshingura and Yotsuya Kaidan into the single Crest of Betrayal.

An adaptation was made in 2002, in Story 1 of the jdorama Kaidan Hyaku Shosetsu .


It is hard to measure Oiwa's influence on modern Japanese Horror films. Many of her traits are standard to the onryō, including her costume of white burial kimono, white and indigo face, and long, disheveled hair. In this sense, her influence is no greater than any other in the same genre.

However, Sadako from the film Ring is a clear homage to Oiwa. Her final appearance is a direct adaptation of Oiwa, including the cascading hair and drooping, malformed eye. Also, Sadako's use of the television to manifest could be considered analogous to Oiwa's use of the lantern.


  • Oiwa is supposedly buried at a temple, Myogyo-ji, in Yotsuya, a neighbourhood of Tokyo. The date of her death is listed as February 22, 1636.
  • Several productions of Yotsuya Kaidan, including television and movie adaptations, have reported mysterious accidents, injuries and even deaths. It is now a tradition, before staging an adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan, for the principal actors and the director to make a pilgrimage to Oiwa's grave at and ask her permission and blessing for their production. This is considered especially important of the actor assuming the role of Oiwa.
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